DTA seeks new contractors for COVIDSafe

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

More private contractors are set to be brought in to help further develop the federal government’s COVIDSafe contact tracing app, which successfully identified a new close contact for the first time this week, three months after it was launched.

Existing contractors have been paid nearly $2.75 million for work on COVIDSafe, which was based on the Singapore government’s open source TraceTogether contact tracing app, and borrowed much of the code from it.

The bulk of this money went to foreign companies Amazon Web Services and Boston Consulting Group.

The Digital Transformation Agency, which led the development of the app, has now listed two separate opportunities on its Digital Marketplace for further work on COVIDSafe.

New blood: The DTA is seeking new contractors to work on the COVIDSafe app

One listing is for the “ongoing development and enhancement of COVIDSafe core components”, while the other is for “ongoing development and enhancement of COVIDSafe Apps”.

Both opportunities were listed on Thursday and are open for a week, but only for selected sellers. Nine sellers have been invited to apply for the general listing, while 11 have been invited for the one related to core components. It is unclear who these invited sellers are.

“The DTA seeks to engage experienced sellers who have capability to provide development and support capabilities for the ongoing improvements of the COVIDSafe core systems, the successful seller will need to have extensive knowledge and expertise with the AWS stack,” one listing said.

The other listing requires the supplier to have “extensive knowledge and expertise with Android and iOS app development and connection to a backend developed on the AWS stack”.

Both contracts run from early August for six months, with the option for three extensions worth six months each. This means that work on COVIDSafe will potentially continue for another two years, until mid-2022.

The DTA said it was unable to comment further on what the further work on COVIDSafe would involve.

“The COVIDSafe app continues to be improved and enhanced through iterative updates. Procurement for work on the app is consistent with Commonwealth procurement rules,” a DTA spokesperson told InnovationAus.

A number of the private companies brought in to assist with the COVIDSafe app build are still contracted with the government.

Boston Consulting Group received an initial $220,000 contract with the Department of Home Affairs for early prototyping work, before the project was handed to the DTA. Boston Consulting Group then landed a new deal with the DTA, which was recently extended to cover all of August. This contract is now worth more than $800,000.

Amazon Web Services, which is providing the cloud infrastructure for the storage of COVIDSafe data, is contracted currently until the end of October in a deal worth more than $850,000, while Delv won a $500,000 extension to work on the contact tracing app until the end of September.

Shine Solutions, which worked on the early development of COVIDSafe, had its contract with the DTA come to an end this week, after being paid $275,000.

It was revealed this week that COVIDSafe had picked up its first new close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 anywhere in Australia. New South Wales health authorities confirmed the app had been accessed 23 times by the NSW Health, and “a person whose contact details were unavailable from manual contact tracing was contacted using app data and requested to self-isolate as a close contact”.

Despite being launched three months ago and with a recent uptick in cases, especially in Victoria, this is the first time that the app has been able to develop a new individual who is a close contact of a confirmed case.

This has led to widespread criticism of the app and its issues on Apple devices, leading many to call on the government to switch from the current centralised model to the framework provided by Google and Apple, which is decentralised and more privacy-preserving.

But this has been ruled out by the government, with government services minister Stuart Robert saying this would be “high risk” as it takes the manual contact tracers out of the process.

Switching to a different version of digital contact tracing would be “ridiculous” and “dangerous”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week.

The DTA has been regularly updating COVIDSafe and has publicly released its source. This week a new update made improvements to the app’s user experience, security and Bluetooth performance, the agency said.

Help topics on the app are now available in Italian, Greek, Arabic, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese, along with English. The app’s security and Bluetooth performance has also been “strengthened”, the DTA said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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